Telling Tales Out of School With Alan Bennett's History Boys
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Published: April 25, 2006
Twenty minutes after taking their bows on Friday night, the History Boys were gathered around a table upstairs at Angus McIndoe, the Broadway hangout on West 44th Street. Two of them, Dominic Cooper and Samuel Barnett, were explaining that they knew each other from drama school. Or more specifically, Mr. Barnett was saying that he and his classmates had known of Mr. Cooper.
Half of us were going around impressed," Mr. Barnett said, "and the other half were saying, 'What an arrogant. ...' " His sentence sailed off into the unpublishable and ended in a burst of laughter.
Needling, derision and merciless ridicule — yes, these are the foundations of one of the most successful and critically acclaimed ensemble performances of the last two years.
"The History Boys," the latest play by Alan Bennett, has finished a sold-out run at the National Theater in London, won the Olivier Award (Britain's version of the Tony) for best play, toured the world and been made into a movie. The cast came to New York from Sydney, Australia, two weeks ago, and opened on Sunday night at the Broadhurst Theater to nearly unanimously glowing reviews.
The boys of the title are students at a state-run secondary school in England, and their classroom is the battleground for two teachers with dueling educational philosophies. Irwin, played by Stephen Campbell Moore, is a young, wiry iconoclast of the new school who believes that knowledge should be spent strategically in pursuit of academic success. The other, Hector, is played by Richard Griffiths; Hector's enormous girth embodies his belief that knowledge, sublime and impractical, is not to be tossed about lightly.
The actors who play the title characters — Mr. Cooper, Mr. Barnett, Jamie Parker, Russell Tovey, James Corden, Andrew Knott, Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Anderson (still in England, but expected to join the cast soon) — are not, by any definition, boys. Their ages range from 21 to 27, representing a short but crucial distance from the teenagers they portray. For example Mr. Bennett had wanted an actor whose voice had not yet broken to play Mr. Barnett's character. (Mr. Barnett is 26 today.) Nicholas Hytner, the director of the play and of the National Theater, who joined the table around midnight, winced when the actors gave their ages.
But watch the young men banter for a few minutes, and you could be fooled. (You would not be the only one: while filming the movie at a school in England, a teacher ordered the cast members, who were sitting at a pub in school uniforms, to unload some books from her car.) A waitress came by to take orders — burgers, all — but would not be let go that easily, especially after giving her name.
"Thank you, Stephanie!"
"I love you, Stephanie!"
Over the last two weeks the young men have become regulars at Angus. Not that they would have been reserved otherwise.
"You didn't have to orchestrate them larking about," Mr. Bennett said in a telephone interview, recalling the early days of rehearsal. "They did it anyway."
They call one another nicknames that, like much British slang, sound obscurely vulgar. Though as a group they are immediately welcoming, they communicate with such an undercurrent of suppressed laughter and conspiratorial whispering that an outsider begins to wonder if there is a joke he is not getting.
A perfect illustration of this: on the cover of the show's Playbill, a group portrait of the boys, Mr. Corden is making a subtle but unmistakably obscene gesture.
"You could easily say that we're probably the least professional group of actors on Broadway," Mr. Cooper said.
You could say it, but that would not make it true.
Before "The History Boys," Mr. Cooper had a leading role in "His Dark Materials," a National Theater production also directed by Mr. Hytner. Mr. Barnett, who was nominated for an Olivier for his performance in "The History Boys," was also in "His Dark Materials," as was Mr. Tovey. Mr. Parker trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Those who were less experienced, Mr. Bennett recalled, quickly stood out during the auditions in early 2004. Mr. Corden, who plays the portly and jolly Timms, practically inspired Mr. Bennett to create a character to fit his look and personality. Mr. Dhawan, at his audition, read a poem he had written about the play. It helped that he and Mr. Knott were both from northern England, as is Mr. Bennett.
Rudi Dharmalingam, an understudy, was the eighth History Boy at the table; he is currently playing Mr. Anderson's part and, incidentally, was the only one of the group who had actually graduated from a university.
"Almost by accident," Mr. Bennett said, "we acquired a group of actors who have very distinct personalities. Which feeds into the writing, really."
Mr. Cooper, for example, who plays the sexually precocious Dakin, is the quickest with a joke, often a coarse one; Mr. Parker is the cerebral one onstage and off.
Both Mr. Hytner and Mr. Bennett said that the performances, at first instinctively wild, had over the months become more accomplished and disciplined. Before the play began, the actors had to be taught, like real students, about Wittgenstein, Auden, Hardy and Housman, with whom most of the actors were vaguely familiar at best. Though the Boys constantly refer to these writers onstage, Mr. Cooper said the actors had mostly forgotten those lessons.
As for that original, instinctively wild stuff, it has, apparently, continued offstage.
"They are eight of the nicest guys you could meet," Mr. Hytner said, "but they express their friendships with each other by being absolutely vile to each other at all times."
Of course if all this vileness had been real, it would have been almost impossible to cope with a yearlong run at the National, followed by a summer of filming — Fox Searchlight plans to release the movie in the fall — and the homesickness of the months-long international tour.
All the actors, and even Mr. Hytner, talk with some pleasant surprise about the lack of competitiveness in the group. Mr. Bennett said the dynamic was quite different from that in Beyond the Fringe, the 1960's comedy revue he created with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller.
"They're much kinder to one another than we were," Mr. Bennett said.
Mr. Corden, echoing the others, said, "There's a strength within the eight of us."
He recalled hating his fellow cast members at the first meeting, but has grown so close to them that he is trying to get each one involved in his next project, a sitcom picked up by the BBC. This change in attitude, Mr. Corden said, did not take long.
"At the first tech rehearsal," he said, "I remember having one conversation where it all came together."
Mr. Cooper jumped in: "It was about pornography."
Whereupon he was immediately told to shut up.